How urban design can enhance mental health


Ling Meng

Our urban environments aren't just the background to our day-to-day lives. They play a central role in supporting our mental and physical health by influencing the choices we make and way we live.

Take the example of Hogeway, a town outside Amsterdam inhabited entirely by people with dementia. From the layout of the streets to the style of the residences to the ample green spaces, the town is specifically designed to reduce stress, increase social interaction, and encourage physical activity. As a result, residents require fewer medications, live longer, and appear to be happier and more content than their peers in traditional care facilities.

But urban spaces can also have a negative impact on our mental health because they tend to have low social cohesion, higher crime and more noise, crowds and pollution. The spatial and material choices we make as we design urban communities can mean the difference between mental health and mental harm. As a developer committed to making places that matter, icona is invested in making choices that support mental and physical health.

What is urban design?

Urban design defines the design of urban areas such as towns and cities. It includes the design of buildings, streets, parks, squares and other spaces where people live, work and play. It is a collaborative and multidisciplinary field of endeavour that encompasses architecture, landscape architecture, ecology, zoning, planning, art, infrastructure, psychology and more. The purpose of urban design is to enhance the way people perceive and use the urban environment, so that they can live a full, purposeful and satisfying life. The shape of the places we live dictates the shape of our lives, which is why the design of our homes, workspaces, play spaces and "third spaces"—spaces outside of work and home where we can gather and relax—is so important.

Urban design and mental health

In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness. While urban design alone can’t solve this complex issue, it does have a role to play. An urban community can offer access to mental health supports and services, for one. It can provide space to exercise, play and connect with others. It can provide an environment that is safe, clean and inviting. And it can engage our senses in ways that create joy and wonder.

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health has led the way in exploring the role of urban design in supporting mental health. They have developed a framework to guide the creation of "restorative cities"—places where mental health and wellness are prioritized through thoughtful, intentional design.

This evidence-based framework identifies the seven design pillars that characterize cities that support mental health.

Inclusive. Cities can be designed in ways that welcome diverse community members. Wheelchair ramps, Braille and multilingual signage, wider streets, and better lighting—these design details can help to ensure everyone, regardless of gender, ability, culture or orientation, can participate fully in city life and feel recognized, connected and self-reliant.

Green. Research indicates that walks in nature can lower a person's risk for depression. (Just looking at trees reduces our levels of stress-related hormones and lowers our blood pressure.) Nature has a healing and restorative effect, which is why it's so important to make room for green spaces in our urban areas.

Blue. Research also shows that people who live near water are less likely to have mental health issues. Water, whether in natural forms such as ponds, lakes and harbours or human-made fountains and water features can create calming, relaxing spaces for contemplation and introspection.

Sensory. Stimulating visual interest and sparking curiosity has the power to boost happiness. Cities that include unexpected and intriguing elements, such as interesting shop windows, public art and murals, help to engage residents and enhance mental health places.

Neighbourly. Socializing improves mood and staves off depression and dementia. The right mix of residential, business and social spaces, smaller blocks and wider walkways promote social interactions. Dog parks, farmers markets, pocket parks with chessboard setups—these community features help people build positive connections with their neighbours. Bylaws can play as much of a role as design in fostering neighbourly connections. During the pandemic, the first city in Metro Vancouver to allow people to enjoy alcoholic beverages in a small number of parks was the City of Port Coquitlam. Feedback on this pilot initiative was so positive that the City is now considering extending it to more parks in future.

Active. Activity and exercise can have a profound positive effect on mental health, especially among vulnerable populations. Designing cities with safe, accessible walking paths and bike paths and trails as well as open spaces to do yoga or tai-chi encourages people to keep moving.

Playable. Play isn't just for kids. For people of all ages, play reduces stress, releases endorphins and stimulates the mind. Playgrounds, recreational areas and even interactive sculptures can bring a sense of imagination and play to the community. For example, the A-maze-ing Laughter exhibit at English Bay inspires people to take selfies of themselves imitating the sculptural poses and expressions captured in the artwork.

Northern cities and winter blues

Northern cities such as Vancouver have unique challenges when it comes to protecting mental health, including a lack of light and a lot of rain.

The combination of shorter daylight hours and tall buildings that block out light can prevent city-dwellers from accessing enough sunlight, which can contribute to depression and lethargy. The City of Vancouver is currently reviewing building shadow analyses on development applications to ensure that certain public spaces, including parks, intersections and streets with high pedestrian traffic, receive enough sun during the winter months.

Rain can also literally put a damper on active and social lifestyles unless the city is designed to encourage outdoor activities during wet weather. Vancouver rains an average of 180 days per year, but design details such as glass canopies that project over the sidewalks and outdoor café seating entice people to come out in all weathers to enjoy destinations such as Robson Street.

Creating more dog-friendly parks or allocating certain times of day for park areas to be off-leash can also encourage residents to socialize more and spend more time outdoors as well as increase overall usage of park spaces.

Cities with purpose

This framework is important for us at icona to consider when designing a new community or growing an existing one. Thinking about how urban design can enhance mental health encourages us to redefine what our communities are for. When a city is designed with mental health in mind, it becomes more than just a place to live and work. It becomes a place to discover our true potential. When our cities encourage us to move, explore, play, contemplate, participate and interact, it has the power to change our lives—and our brain chemistry—for the better.

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